Real Madrid have no new Galactico but squad suits Julen Lopetegui
Florentino Perez rarely wastes a smile and events this summer have given the Real Madrid president little reason to crack one. Both his manager (Zinedine Zidane) and his star player (Cristiano Ronaldo) departed the Bernabeu, taking with them a magnetic ability to attract silverware and in the case of Zidane a reputation that was a major pull for players operating in football's higher orbit.
On Friday, Perez managed something between a grin and a grimace as Mariano Diaz completed his return to the club from Ligue 1. Handsome, highlighted and diamond-studded, seeing a touch of Ronaldo in the former Canterano prospect was unavoidable. Equally so was a palpable lack of enthusiasm when the No. 7 shirt recently vacated by the world's most marketable player was handed over. This was not -- as his Lyon counterpart Jean-Michel Aulas suggested -- how Perez envisaged the succession.
Throughout the summer, A-list names flashed in front of Perez's eyes like a trailer for the most expensive blockbuster ever produced. Madrid do not lack a James Bond budget, Perez has simply been denied the opportunity to press the button marked "Galactico 3.0" first by Zidane's frugality and now Julen Lopetegui's comparative lack of allure.
Zidane famously referenced expensive cars when he was a Madrid player and the appointment of the former Spain coach has removed a little of Real's golden sheen: Lucas Hernandez's release clause was reportedly offered on deadline day, yet the World Cup-winner remains at Atletico.
"With Mariano's arrival, the squad is now closed. I don't think there will be any movements at the last minute. We're happy and satisfied with the team we've got," Lopetegui stated on Friday.
The Real manager's songsheet had been reduced to just one tune as the clock ticked down and it became apparent that no direct Ronaldo replacement would be forthcoming. Not Neymar. Not Kylian Mbappe. Perez's cheque book no longer dominates Europe and he has invested instead in philosophy over immediacy. And for that, Lopetegui may be just the man he needs.
There was more to Zidane's management than hand-clapping but the Frenchman relied on a core of 14-15 players, dipping into his squad only when circumstance dictated. The glaring deficiencies exposed in the league last season by that approach were masked by sustained Champions League success. Lopetegui has so far used 16 players in all competitions and is more naturally inclined to trust a full squad rather than half of one, or to rely on a single player to the detriment of team cohesion.
Real's summer business wasn't market-shattering but over the course of the last 12 months a balanced and talented squad with cover in every position has been assembled for Lopetegui to work with. Alvaro Odriozola provides international quality on the right of defence with the untapped potential of Castilla graduate Sergio Reguilon a welcome antidote to the complacency of Theo Hernandez (now on loan at Sociedad) on the left.
Dani Ceballos has already managed almost 20 percent of the Liga minutes he was handed by Zidane last season and Uruguay international Federico Valverde's versatility adds another dimension to the midfield. Between the sticks Madrid have arguably the strongest goalkeeping trio in European club football: Keylor Navas and Thibaut Courtois have 148 caps between them, while backup Kiko Casilla offers 140 top-flight appearances under his belt.
Lopetegui will also benefit from a clear hierarchical structure that Zidane could never quite get a handle on. None of the more recent arrivals will expect to dislodge senior players immediately but the threat from the bench will help to focus occasionally wandering minds. Karim Benzema has started the season on the front foot but for the first time in years he faces a genuine contender in Mariano.
Mariano scored 18 Ligue 1 goals for Lyon in 2017-18, the same number as Radamel Falcao, Nabil Fekir and Mario Balotelli, earning the 25-year-old the right to be regarded as considerably more than an understudy to lace Benzema's boots. Teenager Vinicius Junior has yet to be unleashed in a competitive senior game but his raw talent is another string to Lopetegui's bow and one that the Real boss will play sooner rather than later.
Turning a profit in the market was scarcely Perez's goal in June but he declared himself satisfied with Real's transfer business on deadline day. To a certain extent the Real president's die was cast by circumstances that were out of his hands but now the club's fortunes lie firmly in those of Lopetegui, who by a combination of opportunism and design has been handed a squad tailored to his preferences.
With the safety net now removed, Perez's manager is on one of the narrowest tightropes in European football. Like Zidane's predecessor Rafa Benitez, how Lopetegui harnesses those assets between now and Christmas will determine the manner and timing of his descent and the expression on his employer's face when it arrives.